You might think with a lineup of guests that included Robert DeNiro, Justin Timberlake and Van Morrison, it would be impossible to have anything less than a terrific late-night talk show. But then, you would not have seen Monday's premiere of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, NBC's long-awaited replacement for Conan O'Brien.

Even granting lots of leeway for opening-night nerves, this was a pretty bad beginning for the Saturday Night Live alum.

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An SNL-like backstage sketch set in Fallon's dressing room with O'Brien still packing his gear had a couple of laughs. One involved Jay Leno NOT leaving NBC, and the other came in the form of O'Brien asking Fallon what he was going to do for guests next week after he runs through a killer debut week lineup that includes Tina Fey and Drew Barrymore.

But it was all pretty much downhill from there until Van Morrison closed with "Sweet Thing" from his legendary Astral Weeks album. What a treat to see Morrison on TV with a full band jamming away on such a lyrical piece.

However, even here, I have a couple of complaints. In terms of engineering, the sound was so muddy you couldn't hear the lush melodic undercurrents and polyrhythms that distinguish many of Morrison's best songs. And why couldn't executive producer Lorne Michaels have rewarded the folks who stayed up late for Morrison with two songs instead of one?

But, hey, you want pure musical sound, buy the CD -- don't go to late-night network TV looking for it, I guess.

The sketches and audience-participation bits were generally abysmal. One segment had three people from the audience licking such objects as a lawn mower, fish bowl and copying machine for $10 each from Fallon.

Forget about the opening monologue -- I know Fallon is a better comedian than he showed his first-night audience.

Still, for all of that criticism, I will be back tonight. Call me a sucker. But Tina Fey is one of the guests, and I cannot wait to see what she and her one-time SNL colleague will come up with.

(Above: NBC Photo of Robert DeNiro and Jimmy Fallon by Dana Edelson)

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